Disinfection: Solutions to stop pathogens from spreading

Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films IST
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Disinfection and sterilization are the most reliable and best way to ensure patient safety in healthcare settings. Whether it is at the point of care when the patient is either at the hospital or medical practice, or wherever medical devices are manufactured and packaged in a sterile environment – the transmission of pathogens and microorganisms via contaminated surfaces, objects, or hands can have severe health impacts.

Hospital settings require special care and diligence since they are high-traffic areas. Apart from hospital staff and patients in outpatient or inpatient care, it is primarily hospital visitors who can be reservoirs for infectious pathogens. Many can introduce antibiotic-resistant bacteria without even knowing it. Even though they might not get sick, they can still pass the germs to others, who are less fortunate.

Without regular hygienic hand disinfection, these pathogens can be spread from person to person through frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, light switches, or elevator buttons. Patients with weakened immune systems due to treatments are more susceptible to these germs, which can trigger serious infections that may not be treatable and can cause death.

This highlights the biggest challenge when it comes to effective hospital hygiene: to prevent the spread of pathogens, all touch surfaces must be cleaned and disinfected frequently. While this is already standard practice in hospital environments, it is a very time-consuming and labor-intensive process. What’s more, this task is always receptive to mistakes or negligence, which is why solutions that assist people with these responsibilities and maintain quality of disinfection and cleaning consistency can offer invaluable support in this setting.

Disinfection does not have to involve manual labor

Several Fraunhofer institutes have teamed up in the "MobDi - Mobile Disinfection" joint project to develop a mobile robot. Armed with various tools, it could soon take over this responsibility.

Dr. Kristina Lachmann and her team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Surface Engineering and Thin Films IST have designed a respective tool for the robot that does not wipe but uses atmospheric pressure plasma to disinfect contaminated surfaces: "They are created by applying very high voltage to a gas under atmospheric pressure. This prompts the gas atoms to split into ions, electrons, and radicals," she explains in our MEDICA-tradefair.com interview. "Radicals break the bonds of organic molecules. Simultaneously, plasma glows. This creates UV radiation, which damages cells or destroys their DNA."

Not only does this protect hospital staff from the risk of infection, but it also eliminates the use of a rag or cloth, which can potentially spread germs and pathogens, Lachmann adds. However, it still takes conclusive research to determine whether or to what extent this method can substitute soak and wipe disinfection or at least be a viable complement.

Since 2020, the University Hospital of Regensburg has been involved in the "PACMAN" project, which takes things a step further. It is testing an antimicrobial coating for frequently used contact surfaces at high risk of pathogen transmission. When the coated surface is exposed to light, it generates a highly reactive oxygen (singlet oxygen) that kills bacteria and viruses on the surface. "The benefit of an antimicrobial coating is that it provides permanent protection without the involvement of staff. That also means, surface disinfection and antimicrobial coating complement each other," says Prof. Wolfgang Bäumler in a MEDICA-tradefair.com interview. The project will continue through October 2023.

The COVID-19 pandemic obviously affects issues of disinfection and sterilization, too. The “MobDi” project was launched explicitly to address pandemic concerns, while the “PACMAN” research had not yet factored in the infectious disease. However, intermediate results also indicate the effectiveness of the antimicrobial coating against SARS-CoV-2.

To meet safety and reliability requirements, the industry sector must also take the risk of infection into account. This pertains especially to delicate products such as implants and surgical instruments. In a MEDICA-tradefair.com interview, Frank Wolfsdorf, Sales Manager at SOMI medical GmbH, explains, "We take multiple countermeasures to reduce the risk of infections by maintaining a higher standard for hygiene, by providing personal protective equipment, and by conducting daily COVID-19 tests. We also use resources such as air cleaners in many rooms. They release negative ions into the air and activate oxygen to kill viruses, bacteria and germs and remove particles from the air."

Smart disinfection must save time

Whether the risk for serious infection stems from the coronavirus or multidrug-resistant pathogens: hygiene specialists are fighting an enemy that is as tireless as it is omnipresent and able to multiply. Up against these odds, it is doubtful if they ever stand a chance to win it. It is thus even more important to use solutions that save time and make their work more productive as they try to keep patients safe on a daily basis.

But it does not necessarily take high-tech solutions like the MobDi project’s disinfection robot. Simpler ideas such as the antimicrobial coating of the PACMAN project can likewise be a key component of hospital hygiene and free up valuable time for experts to tackle important tasks that should be performed by humans.

The cleaning of surfaces in hospitals is a time-consuming and labor-intensive work.

The cleaning of surfaces in hospitals is a time-consuming and labor-intensive work.